Shrink­ing our wrap

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Veronika Me­duna

With China shut­ting its gates to our plas­tics and pa­per, what can New Zealand do to stem the tide of ocean waste?

Un­less we get se­ri­ous about re­cy­cling, there’ll be a tonne of plas­tic for ev­ery three tonnes of fish in the ocean by 2025 and more plas­tic than fish, by weight, by 2050. With China shut­ting its gates to our plas­tics and pa­per, what can New Zealand do to stem the tide?

Twenty years ago, peo­ple in the small sea­side com­mu­nity of Raglan got a wake-up call when their ru­ral land­fill closed. It was an old, un­lined rub­bish dump and had been leak­ing into lo­cal wa­ter­ways and the har­bour. The clo­sure meant the town­ship had to find other ways of deal­ing with its waste. Rick Thorpe got in­volved be­cause he loves the har­bour and saw an op­por­tu­nity to re­store it. In­spired by the late Eva Rickard, an out­spo­ken Māori land-rights cam­paigner who had been urg­ing the com­mu­nity to take bet­ter care of its en­vi­ron­ment, he helped estab­lish the com­mu­nity re­source re­cov­ery cen­tre Xtreme Zero Waste. He is still there to­day, now one of 40 em­ploy­ees. The cen­tre re­turns $1.2 mil­lion to the lo­cal econ­omy. “That’s what we used to bury in the ground.”

Ini­tially, the town trans­ferred all waste to an­other land­fill, but that proved costly and opened peo­ple’s eyes to the sheer vol­ume of rub­bish. Xtreme Zero Waste be­gan ex­plor­ing other op­tions and, within five years, man­aged to di­vert three-quar­ters (about 13 tonnes) of rub­bish that would have oth­er­wise been dumped. The re­main­ing quar­ter is an on­go­ing chal­lenge, Thorpe says, “partly be­cause we don’t have con­trol over some waste streams that are im­ported or man­u­fac­tured and we don’t have ad­e­quate cen­tral gov­ern­ment pol­icy or leg­is­la­tion on prod­uct ste­ward­ship”.

Plas­tics rep­re­sent one of these tricky waste streams. Most plas­tic items don’t make it back to a col­lec­tion point, and there are lim­ited mar­kets for those that do. Nev­er­the­less, the Raglan com­mu­nity is work­ing to­wards be­com­ing free of sin­gle-use plas­tics. The town’s su­per­mar­kets and busi­nesses were among the first in the coun­try to phase out sin­gle-use plas­tic bags and are now fol­low­ing up with throw­away straws and cof­fee cups. Plas­tics from kerb­side re­cy­cling col­lec­tions and busi­nesses are sorted by hand. Clear drink bot­tles, milk bot­tles and some soft plas­tics are sent to com­pa­nies in New Zealand or over­seas for re­cy­cling. Those of lesser value, or with no cur­rent mar­kets, are stored while the team of com­mu­nity en­trepreneurs in­ves­ti­gates how to turn them into some­thing new.


At the start of this year, a much louder wake-up call rang out glob­ally when China stopped im­port­ing other coun­tries’ rub­bish for re­cy­cling. For many years, China had been the world’s tip, buy­ing more than 50% of the global sup­ply of recyclables. Its new pol­icy, known as Na­tional Sword, placed tight re­stric­tions on 24 dif­fer­ent types of waste, in­clud­ing many re­cy­clable plas­tics.

The ef­fect was im­me­di­ate and dra­matic. Tonnes of plas­tics and other ma­te­ri­als piled up in rub­bish sort­ing fa­cil­i­ties around New Zealand, wait­ing for new mar­kets. But per­haps more im­por­tantly, China’s de­ci­sion trig­gered a ma­jor shift in think­ing about waste.

Although the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of plas­tic waste is in­cal­cu­la­ble, there is also an eco­nomic price at­tached to our throw­away con­sumer cul­ture. A 2016 re­port, “The New Plas­tics Econ­omy”, by the Ellen MacArthur Foun­da­tion, es­ti­mates that bil­lions of dol­lars are lost glob­ally from plas­tic pack­ag­ing alone. “Af­ter a short first-use cy­cle, 95% of plas­tic pack­ag­ing ma­te­rial value, or be­tween US$80 and $120 bil­lion an­nu­ally, is lost to the econ­omy. A stag­ger­ing 32% of plas­tic pack­ag­ing es­capes col­lec­tion sys­tems, gen­er­at­ing sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic costs by re­duc­ing the pro­duc­tiv­ity of vi­tal nat­u­ral sys­tems such as the ocean and clog­ging ur­ban in­fra­struc­ture. The cost of such af­ter-use ex­ter­nal­i­ties for plas­tic pack­ag­ing, plus the cost as­so­ci­ated with green­house-gas emis­sions from its pro­duc­tion, is con­ser­va­tively es­ti­mated at $40 bil­lion an­nu­ally – ex­ceed­ing the plas­tic pack­ag­ing in­dus­try’s profit pool.”

The re­port calls for a rad­i­cal de­par­ture from the lin­ear make-use-dis­pose ap­proach to­wards a cir­cu­lar econ­omy, in which “plas­tics never be­come waste”.


The con­cept of a cir­cu­lar econ­omy is what As­so­ci­ate En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Eu­ge­nie Sage hopes to im­ple­ment for New Zealand’s waste and re­cy­cling sec­tor. As she waits for a multi-agency task force to re­port back at the end of this month with short-term rec­om­men­da­tions on how to re­spond to China’s de­ci­sion, she wants to tackle New Zealand’s over­all waste prob­lem.

New Zealand is among the high­est pro­duc­ers of ur­ban waste in the de­vel­oped world: each of us pro­duces more than 700kg of rub­bish a year.

On av­er­age, each of us pro­duces more than 700kg of rub­bish a year, which puts New Zealand among the high­est pro­duc­ers of ur­ban waste in the de­vel­oped world. Yet, there is lit­tle data on how much of that rub­bish is reused, re­cy­cled or dumped.

Among the Gov­ern­ment’s pri­or­i­ties is a plan to im­prove data col­lec­tion by re­quir­ing land­fill op­er­a­tors to re­port on the com­po­si­tion and quan­tity of waste. An­other part of the ac­tion plan is to strengthen do­mes­tic ca­pac­ity to process recyclables and to look into im­ple­ment­ing vol­un­tary and manda­tory prod­uct ste­ward­ship schemes

to en­cour­age man­u­fac­tur­ers, re­tail­ers and con­sumers to con­sider the en­vi­ron­men­tal ef­fects of prod­ucts through­out their life cy­cle.

Over­seas, re­sponses have in­cluded fis­cal in­cen­tives (for in­stance, ex­empt­ing sec­ond­hand poly­mers from value-added taxes on the grounds that the pri­mary ma­te­rial has al­ready been taxed); man­dated min­i­mums in re­cy­cled con­tent in prod­ucts such as plas­tic con­tain­ers; and ex­tended pro­ducer re­spon­si­bil­ity schemes – mak­ing

The an­nual cost of green­house-gas emis­sions from plas­tic pack­ag­ing pro­duc­tion is es­ti­mated at $40 bil­lion – ex­ceed­ing the pack­ag­ing in­dus­try’s profit.

man­u­fac­tur­ers and brands contribute to the net cost of their prod­ucts’ dis­posal.


The en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of plas­tics is stag­ger­ing. Plas­tic frag­ments and mi­crobeads are now found in the deep­est and most re­mote parts of the world’s oceans, con­cen­trat­ing in garbage patches within mas­sive gyres. Ma­rine mam­mals and seabirds are dy­ing, stran­gled by plas­tic pack­ag­ing and aban­doned fish­ing nets and with stom­achs full of plas­tic shards. Mi­croplas­tics are turn­ing up in our food.

Re­search pub­lished last year shows that plas­tics have now out­grown most man­made ma­te­ri­als and be­come the work­horse of the mod­ern econ­omy. In what was the first global anal­y­sis of all mass-pro­duced plas­tics man­u­fac­tured since the 1950s, the re­searchers es­ti­mated that 8.3 bil­lion tonnes of vir­gin plas­tics have been pro­duced to date. Pro­duc­tion has in­creased 20-fold in the past 50 years and is ex­pected to dou­ble again

in the next 20 years. The anal­y­sis shows that, glob­ally, 79% of all plas­tics have been ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in land­fills or the en­vi­ron­ment.

The “New Plas­tics Econ­omy” re­port cites re­search that es­ti­mates that 8 mil­lion tonnes of plas­tic leaks into the ocean each year. That’s the equiv­a­lent of dump­ing the con­tents of a rub­bish truck straight into the sea ev­ery minute. In an even more dis­turb­ing com­par­i­son, sci­en­tists es­ti­mated that in a busi­ness-as-usual sce­nario, there’ll be a tonne of plas­tic for ev­ery three tonnes of fish in the ocean by 2025, and more plas­tic than fish, by weight, by 2050.

New Zealand doesn’t man­u­fac­ture raw plas­tics. We im­port vir­gin ma­te­ri­als ei­ther as gran­u­lar resin or in sheets to make a range of prod­ucts. Ac­cord­ing to Plas­tics New Zealand, an in­dus­try as­so­ci­a­tion of about 160 com­pa­nies and or­gan­i­sa­tions, New Zealand im­ported about 250,000 tonnes of vir­gin plas­tics in 2017. Just over half of that was used to make pack­ag­ing, with the rest turned into prod­ucts for mar­kets such as build­ing and con­struc­tion, elec­tron­ics, sports,

A stag­ger­ing 32% of plas­tic pack­ag­ing es­capes col­lec­tion sys­tems, much of it clog­ging drains, streams and oceans.

fash­ion, of­fice equip­ment and trans­port.

Busi­ness man­ager Ken Sow­man says Plas­tics New Zealand was an early adopter of a plas­tic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cod­ing sys­tem in the early 1990s, and man­u­fac­tur­ers la­bel prod­ucts to aid sort­ing and re­cy­cling. But, he says, New Zealand-made plas­tic pack­ag­ing isn’t the whole story. “There is a huge ar­ray and vol­ume of im­ported re­tail prod­ucts con­tained in or pro­tected by pack­ag­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, there is no re­quire­ment for the plas­tic code to be on im­ported items and the as­so­ci­a­tion be­lieves the Gov­ern­ment needs to in­ves­ti­gate how this can be ad­dressed.”

The global plas­tics in­dus­try is frag­mented, and this has led to a pro­lif­er­a­tion of dif­fer­ent types of plas­tics and many prod­ucts that mix chem­i­cally dis­tinct plas­tic poly­mers to­gether. Take a con­tainer with a spray noz­zle, says Paul Evans, chief ex­ec­u­tive of waste in­dus­try body Waste MINZ. The bot­tle

and the spray top are of­ten made from dif­fer­ent plas­tic types mixed with other ma­te­ri­als, which makes it dif­fi­cult to re­cy­cle ef­fec­tively.

Evans ar­gues that New Zealand needs to build an on­shore re­cy­cling in­dus­try, but should also con­sider “which ma­te­ri­als are ac­tu­ally ac­cept­able to bring into New Zealand in the first place”.

In re­sponse to the “New Plas­tics Econ­omy” re­port, he says New Zealand may need to stop us­ing cer­tain types of plas­tics. “They will never be eco­nomic to re­cy­cle; they will never be able to be re­cy­cled in a cir­cu­lar sys­tem. We need to ac­tu­ally get real about a cir­cu­lar re­cy­cling sys­tem, and that means, for me, it’s hard to see a fu­ture for things such as PVC and poly­styrene and the plas­tics col­lected in grade 7, which is the catch-all for ev­ery­thing else.”

How­ever, Sow­man says re­strict­ing the range of plas­tic raw ma­te­ri­als would dis­ad­van­tage not just man­u­fac­tur­ers but a range of other sec­tors. “Dif­fer­ent resins pro­vide dif­fer­ent prop­er­ties such as oxy­gen and mois­ture barriers, stiff­ness, clar­ity, per­for­mance at dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­tures … It is not prac­ti­cal to re­strict us­age to solely PET or HDPE.”


A sig­nif­i­cant hur­dle for tack­ling plas­tics is the lack of a sin­gle na­tional data­base to track ma­te­rial flows from raw im­ports to re­cy­cling or waste. Sow­man says Plas­tics New Zealand is one of sev­eral par­ties that have urged the Gov­ern­ment to de­velop a na­tional strat­egy for re­cy­cling and waste man­age­ment.

Evans says New Zealand has been crit­i­cised by the OECD for the com­plete ab­sence of ro­bust and re­li­able waste data. “That’s

ob­vi­ously been a con­cern for our sec­tor for a long time. You can’t man­age what you can’t mea­sure.”

One way to keep track of how much rub­bish goes to land­fill is the waste dis­posal levy, but it ap­plies to only 45 land­fills out of a to­tal of 426 con­sented dis­posal fa­cil­i­ties. The Min­istry for the En­vi­ron­ment doesn’t col­lect data spe­cific to plas­tics. Sage says bet­ter data col­lec­tion is a pri­or­ity and she wants to see the levy ex­panded to more than 400 land­fills. Apart from bet­ter in­for­ma­tion, it would also de­liver “a tool to en­cour­age more ma­te­ri­als re­cov­ery and di­ver­sion” as well as more funds for waste min­imi­sa­tion projects.

The levy gen­er­ates about $15 mil­lion, half of which goes to coun­cils to help them re­duce waste. The other half goes to­wards the Waste Min­imi­sa­tion Fund, which sup­ports projects such as the col­lec­tion of soft plas­tics, large-scale coastal clean-up events and ini­tia­tives to estab­lish an on­shore re­cy­cling in­dus­try.

Glob­ally, 79% of all plas­tics have been ac­cu­mu­lat­ing in land­fills or the en­vi­ron­ment.


Un­til this year, New Zealand was ship­ping re­cy­clable plas­tic waste mostly to China. The most re­cent Cus­toms Ser­vice fig­ures show the amount dropped from 10,494 tonnes in 2016 to 492 tonnes this year. The cor­re­spond­ing value has fallen from $6.4 mil­lion to $528,303.

Smart En­vi­ron­men­tal, the coun­try’s largest pri­vately owned refuse com­pany, pro­cesses the recyclables for sev­eral coun­cils from Auck­land to Queen­stown. Man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Gra­hame Chris­tian says the com­pany is cur­rently stock­pil­ing 3000 tonnes of plas­tics await­ing new mar­kets, most likely over­seas. In some lo­ca­tions, it is still fi­nan­cially more at­trac­tive to ex­port recyclables than sell them lo­cally, he says, due to bet­ter pric­ing and lower freight costs. Some are now be­ing shipped to Malaysia and In­done­sia, where Chi­nese-owned re­cy­cling com­pa­nies have sprung up, but the bot­tle­neck cre­ated by China’s ban has sent global prices into a tail­spin and put sig­nif­i­cant pres­sure on the re­cy­cling in­dus­try.

“From Fe­bru­ary to July 2017, we ex­pe­ri­enced some of the high­est com­mod­ity prices of the past five years,” Chris­tian says. “The value of re­cy­cling was three to five times higher 18 months ago than it is now. The largest im­pact has been on mixed pa­per and mixed plas­tics.”

A tonne of mixed plas­tics used to fetch $110. The price has now dropped to $10, or noth­ing. “Some buy­ers are no longer tak­ing the prod­uct.”

This has forced Smart En­vi­ron­men­tal to con­sider le­gal ac­tion against some coun­cils over the losses. “It is dis­ap­point­ing that some lo­cal bodies have re­sponded that they do not have the bud­get. How­ever, it is def­i­nitely our last op­tion.”

The com­pany is re­ly­ing on con­trac­tual pro­vi­sions that cover un­fore­seen risk be­yond the con­trol of ei­ther party and it has

come to new agree­ments with Christchurch and Auck­land coun­cils.

Sev­eral con­trac­tors have given their re­spec­tive lo­cal bodies dead­lines, af­ter which they will ei­ther re­duce ser­vices or refuse to col­lect cer­tain prod­ucts. The big­gest im­pact has been on plas­tics la­belled 3 to 7, which in­cludes blis­ter packs, cos­met­ics con­tain­ers, cling wrap, ice-cream tubs, poly­styrene pack­ag­ing and many more ev­ery­day prod­ucts.

De­spite the ten­sions, Chris­tian says the com­pany has no in­ten­tion of dump­ing stock­piled plas­tics at the land­fill.

“We are all work­ing on po­ten­tial so­lu­tions, in­clud­ing de­vel­op­ing op­tions in New Zealand to deal with both pa­per and plas­tics, but this takes time to both agree on the tech­nol­ogy and en­sure that we come up with the cor­rect so­lu­tion.”


The be­gin­nings of a cir­cu­lar plas­tics econ­omy in New Zealand are tak­ing shape at Flight Plas­tics in Up­per Hutt. The com­pany has been mak­ing plas­tic pack­ag­ing for decades and was the first in Aus­tralasia to start us­ing PET (ID code 1) in the late 1980s, when less-re­cy­clable PVC (ID code 3) plas­tics were still used for most pack­ag­ing.

Ini­tially, it im­ported vir­gin PET resin to man­u­fac­ture meat trays and food con­tain­ers, but last year started re­cy­cling PET col­lected from house­holds and busi­nesses. The shift in think­ing came long be­fore China’s Na­tional Sword. Flight Plas­tics di­rec­tor Derek Lan­der says it was in­spired by changes at one of the its UK sites al­most a decade ago.

“In 2010, our whole busi­ness in the UK was do­ing im­ported vir­gin ma­te­rial. Within a year, we were do­ing 95% re­cy­cled, be­cause the su­per­mar­kets, fol­low­ing a threat of reg­u­la­tion, shifted and the whole mar­ket changed. We looked at that and thought, this will come to New Zealand. And then, we thought, we’ll be the ones to make it come.”

Chief ex­ec­u­tive Keith Smith says one of the rea­sons on­shore PET re­cy­cling hasn’t started ear­lier is that China was pay­ing good money. “It wasn’t that com­mer­cially at­trac­tive to get into re­cy­cling be­cause you had this place to send it all. All you had to do was col­lect it, com­press it into bales and ship it off.”

New Zealand im­ports about 20,000 tonnes of vir­gin PET each year. On top of that, we buy in an­other 10,000 tonnes of ready-made PET food pack­ag­ing, some of which is made from re­cy­cled ma­te­rial. Only about 5000 tonnes are col­lected through re­cy­cling schemes, and Flight Plas­tics has the ca­pac­ity to process all of it into re­cy­cled PET. Bet­ter still, once-re­cy­cled, PET can go through mul­ti­ple cy­cles and still pro­duce food-grade qual­ity.

“A lot of plas­tics can only be down­cy­cled be­cause the re­cy­cled prod­uct won’t be pure enough to op­er­ate at the same stan­dard as the vir­gin ma­te­rial. With clear PET, you can hold it at the same grade of prod­uct and the ma­te­rial can stay in use.”

Smith says us­ing prod­ucts made from New Zealand-re­cy­cled PET is the only way to ac­tu­ally re­duce the waste pile. “The ex­pe­ri­ence world­wide is that once you start re­cy­cling in the coun­try, peo­ple get to know that it’s ac­tu­ally be­ing used prop­erly and make a big­ger ef­fort to re­cy­cle it. You get this cul­tural and gen­er­a­tional shift where peo­ple have less of a throw­away men­tal­ity.”

Although there is room to ramp up the col­lec­tion of PET, the weak­est link in the value chain at this stage is the up­take of re­cy­cled pack­ag­ing by brand own­ers, Smith says. “Con­sumers are up for it and coun­cils are fully sup­port­ive. Brand own­ers are com­ing into place, but cor­po­rate change is slow. Some of them are a bit re­luc­tant be­cause they won’t nec­es­sar­ily make more money. But you’re not re­ally re­cy­cling un­less you can go to the su­per­mar­ket and buy New Zealand-re­cy­cled [pack­ag­ing] ma­te­rial.”

New Zealand im­ported about 250,000 tonnes of vir­gin plas­tics in 2017. Just over half was used to make pack­ag­ing.

Ele­phants fos­sick in a dump in Sri Lanka.

Clock­wise from left: Flight Plas­tics chief ex­ec­u­tive Keith Smith, far left, and di­rec­tor Derek Lan­der; bales of plas­tic ready for re­cy­cling; fin­ished prod­uct be­ing shaped into bis­cuit trays.

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